She could also be referred to as Yupik or Inuit, but on her
Certificate of Indian Blood—Eskimo is the designation she has been given. Her
biological mother is 100 percent Eskimo, and her biological father is likely at
Living in Alaska now, my understanding of the Yupik culture
is vastly different from what it was as a child growing up in Arizona. I have
traveled to native villages, spent nights in huts, eaten traditional foods,
and witnessed firsthand the competitive games they each embrace. For four
years I worked for an organization dedicated to serving the indigenous people
of Western Alaska. My education in that time has been vast.
But when I was a little girl, if someone had mentioned
Eskimos to me, I would have immediately conjured up some cartoon image in my
head. It would have involved an igloo and animal skin parkas, likely with a
pet walrus in the background and plenty of Eskimo kisses to be shared.
The nose-to-nose smooch I believed existed to prevent lips from sticking together in the cold arctic air. The truth behind Eskimo kissing is that it started as a greeting for people who often had much of their faces covered in the cold. With only the noses exposed, only the noses could touch.
Growing up outside of Alaska, my understanding of Eskimos was wildly inaccurate.
And Igloos aren’t a real thing. At least, they aren’t
traditional housing for anyone. Eskimos have real homes, with real walls, much
like yours or mine. Igloos may be built as temporary shelter (and plenty of
Alaskan children grow up building snow huts in the winter just for fun) but
they aren’t ever really a permanent residence.
The animal skin parkas are real, though, even if the pet walruses
were created purely from my imagination.
The point is that growing up outside of Alaska, my
understanding of Eskimos was wildly inaccurate. In fact, I am sure at some
point in my youth that I believed they were fictional characters created only
for storybooks and cartoons.
Now I know better.
Keeping my daughter linked to her Eskimo culture has always been
important to me. In part this will be possible because of the ties we maintain
with her birth family, but I want to be able to bridge that connection for her, myself, as well. It is helpful that I have the background I do and the knowledge
of various Yupik events that take place all around town, because as she gets
older we will be attending plenty of these gatherings.
My family is committed to this goal as well. In fact, the
day she was born, my father sat in the hospital room looking up various Yupik
words to whisper her way. He drilled her birth mother about the terms for
grandfather and baby. Even just this
weekend he was searching through his
smartphone for new words he hadn’t yet learned. It's something made all the more
sweet when you understand that my father is a man who has never lived more than
20 miles from where he was born, and who has never before shown any interest in
foreign languages of any kind.